On the near horizon, Japan’s largest helicopter destroyer JS Izumo and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya were engaged in their respective parts of the operation. The sea was calm yet windy. I was on the US aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to attend the ship tour of the trilateral naval exercise, Malabar-17. Right in front of me on the ship board, US Fighters were taking off and landing one after another.
Malabar-17 is the “largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian Ocean” as President Donald Trump put it on the occasion of the successful summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month. Indeed, it is the debut of JS Izumo in an exercise with other navies. It is also the first time that India has fielded an aircraft carrier to Malabar. Sixteen ships, two submarines and more than 95 aircraft are conducting the historic joint exercise in the Bay of Bengal.
It was exactly 10 years ago when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” at the Indian Parliament. He stated “the Pacific and the Indian Ocean are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity”.
As he anticipated, the Indo-Pacific region has become the centre of geo-political and geo-economic gravity in a decade. It is blessed with opportunities, encompassing India, ASEAN and Africa with full potential, as well as matured economies like Japan and US. At the same time, this region faces serious challenges including attempts to change the status quo by force, coercion or intimidation, and influx of radical elements, to name a few.
Last summer, Prime Minister Abe launched the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” as Japan’s response to such challenges and opportunities. In essence, this strategy regards the Pacific region and the Indian Ocean region as one big strategic domain, and aims to improve inter- and intra- region connectivity and to promote fundamental values such as rule of law. The strategy is also a statement of intent that Japan is ready to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean region with the banner of “Proactive Contribution to Peace.”
It is against this backdrop that JS Izumo and JS Sazanami participate in Malabar-17. The main objective of the exercise is to strengthen inter-operability as well as sharing of best practices between the three navies, but what it demonstrates is something beyond maritime cooperation. It is the expression of unshakeable determination shared by the three democracies to safeguard and solidify a rules-based international order and to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.
If you take a look at recent joint statements agreed to by the leaders of the three countries, including the most recent one between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump, you will find it evident that “rule of law” is the key phrase emphasised in all statements. The title of Prime Minister Abe’s keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2014 was “Japan for the rule of law. Asia for the rule of law. And the rule of law for all of us.” Indeed, ensuring rule of law is critical for the coexistence of big countries and small countries as well as the continued prosperity of future generations.
International law prescribes the order, particularly order governing the seas. Its history is very long, stretching back to the days of ancient Greece. By Roman times, the seas were already kept open to all, with personal possession and partitioning of the sea prohibited. As history moved on, the wisdom and the practical experiences of a great many people involved with the sea, accumulated into common rules. This is what we now know as the international law of the seas. This law was not created by any particular country, nor was it the product of a particular group. Instead, it is the product of our own wisdom, cultivated over a great many years for the well-being and prosperity of all humankind.
The critical importance of the rule of law at sea, including the freedom of navigation, is apparent from the same tenets underlying the activities of the three navies and the Malabar exercise. Japan, India and the US are forces with common values, common vision, and common objectives, closely united to safeguard a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Malabar-17 is certainly a milestone of such concerted efforts, but we can also say that it only marks the beginning of enhanced trilateral cooperation. Based on the robust outcomes of summit meetings between Prime Minister Modi, President Trump and Prime Minister Abe, we will see more to come, because the benefit of our trilateral partnership is something that not only the people of the three countries but the people of like-minded countries in the region can rely on, in this age of great uncertainty.